The niches beneath the porticos of the Uffizi Gallery were originally designed by Vasari purely as architectural features but by the first half of the 19th Century they were occupied by 28 statues of famous people from the worlds of politics, art, literature, science, the judiciary and also religious figures.
It was not the Grand Duke, nor even some worthy authority in the field of politics or art who made this decision, but a humble printer from Florence who, seeing all the empty niches, thought they should be filled with statues of famous men.
This was an era in which every town and city loved to boast of its home-grown geniuses and heroes and in every piazza such monuments to national and civic pride were erected, multiplying like traffic cones.
Vincenzo Batelli, for that was the name of this clever Florentine printer, found it impossible to conceive of a niche as a purely architectural feature. Like so many others of his time, a niche, for him, was nothing other than an architectural backdrop to set off the fame and glory of some illustrious person, and thus a sort of vacant lot, just waiting for its guest of honour.
The city of Florence and indeed the entire region of Tuscany was unrivalled for its lavish supply of geniuses, heroes, artists, poets and men of science. It would therefore be quite simple to fill each one of Vasari’s niches and still have plenty of the great and the good left over. Why not seize this golden opportunity to wed all these lonely widowed niches with their perfect spouse?
Batelli’s only mistake was simply his belief that, being devoid of statues, Vasari’s niches were in fact widowed, instead of being capable of seeing that Vasari had created vestal virgins as a hymn to architectural purity. Since almost everyone at the time shared Batelli’s point of view, the main problem was not the location of the statues but the expense of all that marble and the sculptors’ fees.
In 1834, our enterprising printer came up with the bright idea, a cunning new subscription scheme. All it would take was for four thousand Tuscans to commit themselves to paying one florin a month for thirty consecutive months. To that end, a committee was set up consisting of Prince Andrea Corsini, the Marquises Gino Capponi and Pietro Torrigiani, the lawyer Cesare Capoquadri and Count Luigi de CambrayDigny, but unfortunately they only managed to find seven hundred subscribers.
Batelli was undaunted. He appointed a new committee headed by Giovanni Benericelli Talenti, this time made up of artists, whose more creative talents came up with, among other things, the idea of four bumper lotteries a year, designed by the mathematician Giovanni Antonelli to avoid the jackpots being split. It would be winner takes all and this really fired up the Florentines’ greed.
The florins poured in and statues started appearing in the niches, starting with the one of Nicola Pisano, donated by Grand Duke Leopold II, of Giotto, donated by the Grand Duchess Maria Antonietta, and of Galileo Galilei, donated by Crown Prince Ferdinand.
P.S. if you spot the odd difference between the spelling of the names engraved on the statues and how we spell them now, it was the sculptors who got it wrong.